‘Outlivers’ chapter two – Painful Warrior
THEIA WOKE with eyes black from the beating, dried blood on her cheeks, lips swollen and raw. She ran a hand over her face to explore the bruises, tender to the touch. Workfair day, and her fate was already sealed – her legs too sore to move, never mind run.
She rolled over on her mattress and listened to the rain pattering on the tiles, dripping through the rafters of Soho’s gym. In the distance a church bell tolled the hour and she counted the chimes, willing them to stop so she could turn over and go back to sleep. Six. Seven. Eight already?
She hauled herself out of bed, every muscle protesting, and pulled on her training clothes: black, baggy cotton trousers and shirt, rough-cut, functional and hard-wearing. There’d be no pretty dress, no revealing outfit. She’d wear her training gear, loose-fitting and lumpy, sweat-soaked and shabby. Bruised and scruffy – they’d never take her, not like this.
From the corridor outside came the sound of Leta and Brenan whispering. Too loud. Did they think she couldn’t hear? She swung open the door of the back room. “Don’t worry, I’m alive. And awake. I’m coming.”
Leta thrust a bowl of porridge into her hands. Brenan touched the side of her face, examining the bruises that had come up during the night. “You’re a mess. They’ll never take you for a carer, not looking like that.”
No mind. She’d rather be sent to clean the sewers, or get a job in a factory. Just so long as she could stay here, at Soho’s gym, living in the back room, training when she could. She gulped spoonfuls of porridge and swirled water around the empty bowl.
“It’s past time,” Brenan said, “we should go.”
Leta and Brenan led the way as they headed across the training hall to the front door where Soho waited. This was the part she dreaded, saying goodbye. Not knowing if it was ‘goodbye.’ She might be back in a few hours. She might be free.
Soho took Theia’s hand as she passed, gripped it tight. “Some things you can’t fight.” His eyes glinted with sadness. Or was it laughter?
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back. You won’t get rid of me that easy.”
Soho let go of her hand and bowed to each of them in turn. Theia forced herself to walk out the door, her chest tight, the breath shallow in her lungs. Was this the end, the last time she’d see him? She counted ten clear steps before she turned to look back. Soho was framed in the doorway, a gnarled and cragged tree, ancient yet tough, not shaken by the fiercest storms. He should have gone to a retirement palace years ago. But he chose to stay, teaching kids to fight and stretch and wait and work, obey and sit in silence, not even thinking. She waved to him and he bowed once more, so low his head might touch the ground. She span around and hurried after her friends, dreading what might come.
THEY WALKED five miles through sheets of rain, every seventeen year old on the estate heading the same way, pouring out of homes and hovels and shelters, making for the workfair hall. When they reached it the queue was a half mile long just to get in the door. They stood in the rain for three hours, watched over by enforcers with cattle-prods on their belts, semi-automatics across their backs and helmets that hid their faces.
As they neared the door, two enforcers stood by Theia, staring at her bruises. “Who did this?” one asked.
Don’t react. “No one.”
“You should talk. A man did this. Give us a name.”
She glanced at Leta and Brenan, a smile ghosting on her lips.
One of the men put a gloved hand on her chin, lifted her face to inspect the damage. “Give us a name and he won’t do it again.” He stared at her, waiting for an answer. She couldn’t tell the truth: she was underage, not old enough to be in that bar. Or that fight-cage. “Tripped and fell, landed face first.”
The second enforcer called his partner away. “Let her suffer,” he said and the two men strutted down the line, inspecting the pretty girls in their summer dresses, soaked by the rain.
They were among the last to make it inside and the old warehouse was already crammed with seventeen-year-olds, oven-hot and humid. The building echoed with the burble of chatter, punctuated by the drumming of rain on the metal roof.
Four rows of rain-sodden teenagers queued for processing. Those at the front were prodded, probed and questioned. Teams of technicians consulted computer records, medical and school reports, recommendations from teachers. They fed in details about decisions made, lives changed, fates settled.
At the far end of the hall, on a raised stage, officials scrutinised the crowds, taking notes, pointing out those of interest. At the centre, away from the hustle, sat a group of elders. One of them stood up, stepped towards the front of the stage and examined teenagers brought for inspection.
Leta nudged Theia’s arm with her elbow. “Isn’t that? It is. I think.”
“On the stage, next to red-hair.”
Theia scanned the stage, then froze, not breathing. She knew that face. Aeron, it had to be.
“His hair’s… different,” Leta said.
Longer than before, with absurd blonde highlights. He stood behind a woman, younger than the rest, yet she appeared to be in charge. She spoke to the young man, he flashed a smile, and Theia knew for sure it was him.
It was two years since she’d last seen Aeron. He’d gone to his own workfair day expecting a job in a factory, or supplies, or transport. That would have meant staying on the estate. He was so sure he’d be back, he didn’t even say goodbye. But he’d been taken as a companion for an elder, or an outliver and disappeared from her life. She’d heard not a word since. Now here he was, standing on the stage, scanning the crowd. She lowered her face, not wanting to be noticed.
“Shall we wave? I think he’s seen you,” Leta said.
Theia kept her face to the floor. “Don’t attract attention.”
They were near the front of the queue, among the last to be processed. She glanced up for a second, no more, but looked straight into his eyes. A smile spread across his face. He waved to her, made a gesture towards his head, as if asking what had happened to her hair.
Aeron leapt from the stage.
Theia scowled at him, urging him to keep back, stay away. Don’t come over. But he strode onwards, confident and assured.
He’d grown – two inches taller he seemed, and his skin radiated health, fresh and clean. Life had been good to him. He knew how charming he looked: broad shoulders and dark, deep-set eyes, brown hair, but those foul highlights. He looked better before, when they’d hung out on the wasteland by the river, dishevelled and carefree. Now he wore a dark suit, a white shirt and blue tie, as if a hotshot picked out by the elders to run their banks or investment funds. But he was too young for that. Thirty, forty years too young.
Her eyes implored him to stay back, to keep his distance, not make a scene. He didn’t notice, or didn’t care. He strode over, put his arms around her and hugged her tight. As he lifted her off her feet she fought the reflex to use one of her moves, to put him in a hold and throw him to the ground. Don’t do it. Things were bad enough.
On the stage the red-haired woman was out of her chair, gesturing to the officials around her, pointing towards Aeron.
Theia looked desperately at Brenan and Leta, but they could do nothing. Officials grasped her, insistent, tugging her towards the stage. They scanned her ankle bracelet and brought up her files on a computer tablet. Theia craned her neck trying to see what it said but they shielded it from her and took it to the woman on the stage.
Theia had become the centre of attention, the red-haired woman gesturing her closer. This woman was in charge, but too young, no outliver, not even retirement age. No more than mid-forties, not old enough to vote, yet she had power over the others. Aeron squeezed her hand.
“Let me go.”
“I hate your hair,” Aeron said, “what have you done to your face? Where’d you get those bruises? But don’t worry, I can get you in.”
“I don’t want in. Leave me.”
“It’s better than the life out here. This is your chance. She’ll listen to me.”
She glanced up at him, his handsome features, big smile, those warm eyes, but they avoided hers, as if something lurked there, hidden.
The rain increased, drumming on the metal roof.
“It’s our chance to be together,” Aeron whispered, then let go of her hand and rushed to help the red-haired woman off the stage. She didn’t need help. She could walk as well as anyone, but these people played a game, treating her with respect and deference, pretending she was old and frail as a badge of honour.
Aeron took hold of the woman’s arms, and whispered something to her. The officials busied themselves, rattling instructions at Theia, pushing her forward. The woman waggled a finger to summon her.
Theia looked back to where Leta and Brenan watched, helpless.
“Come girl, what have you done? Aeron calls you a beauty, but your hair is foul. A fighter, he says.” The woman put a hand on Theia’s cheek, examined the bruises. “You lost a fight, badly.”
“Stand up straight, girl.” The woman gestured something to the waiting officials.
Theia’s arms were grasped, she sensed enforcers close by. Her clothes were pulled from her body, her gym shirt ripped off, her baggy cotton pants dragged down around her ankles, leaving her nearly naked, exposed to the hall. The woman made a gesture and the officials span her around, an animal being inspected for its cuts of meat.
“You’ve made no effort on yourself. Why?” The woman fixed Theia with a stare. She had high cheekbones, startling green eyes, and clear, fresh skin. Her rusty auburn hair hung long below her shoulders. “Her attitude is wrong.” The red-haired woman turned away.
Theia was free, out of danger. She wriggled from the grasp of the officials, desperate to get her clothes back on, to cover herself from peering eyes.
The woman moved off, but Aeron followed her, whispering, urging. The woman stopped, demanded to see the computer pad again.
What did it say? She’d heard stories about those files. Everything was there: the names of parents, health predictions, life expectancy, school reports. Information on movements, logged by the ankle bracelet.
“Tag her,” the woman said. “Put her with the companions. And clean her up.” The woman strode from the hall, her business done.
Theia tried to break free, but the adults still held her, two enforcers either side, cattle prods at the ready. An official cut off the ankle bracelet she’d worn since childhood and locked on a new one to track her, every day of her adult life.
Leta called. Theia looked round. Despair was written across Brenan’s face, his eyes saying goodbye. She’d never see her friends again, unless she broke free and ran. But no one escaped. No one ran.
The officials marched her out of the hall. She couldn’t fight guns and cattle prods. There were too many. Enforcers hauled her on a bus, pushed her into a chair and told her not to move. Two of them stood over her as the doors swung shut and the vehicle lurched into motion.
The life she’d known, the gym, the friends, the years of training, dissolved into a blur of rain trickling down the window. They’d take it from her, the life she longed for: sitting on the mat listening to Soho murmur, so soft she barely heard him above her own breathing; the smell of incense and the breeze on her skin; exploring the mysteries hidden in the silence of no thought.
The bus hummed with teenage chatter. From the back seats, a gang of girls mocked Theia’s cropped hair and bruised face.
“She’s no companion,” one said.
“Shouldn’t be here,” said another. “We’re the elite.”
They were right. She shouldn’t be here. She could never be a companion to a rich old man. Her life was already pledged – to the punch block and the side kick, to the break-fall and the hammer-fist. To the slap of bare feet on wooden boards. To mastering the ritual of movement, searching for the moment of no-mind, unfettered and free.
She didn’t belong. She’d escape, find a way out, risk death, kill if she must. Die in agony if it came to that. But she’d never stop fighting.